It’s not just the presence of titles like “The Karate Kid”
and “The A-Team”: If you’re heading to the movies this summer, it really is
1983 all over again. That was the last time we had this kind of an onslaught of
3D extravaganzas — with the accompanying headaches and eye-aches from sloppy
filmmaking and sub-par projection.

“The Last Airbender” was shot in 2D and hastily (and
hideously) converted to 3D. If you had the misfortune to see “Clash of the
Titans” a few months ago, you have an idea of what you’re in for in
“Airbender.” The conversion process leaves distracting “ghosting” patterns
around some images (the sort of thing you see on ancient video tapes) and
double-prints other details, resulting in characters that seem to have
misshapen heads or hairdos that float above and behind their scalps. In one
truly laughable close-up, the perspective is so woefully distorted that the
eyebrows of our young hero, Aang (Noah Ringer), seem to have retreated deep
into his forehead.

lastairbender.jpgAnother drawback to the bogus 3D is its tendency to darken
every scene, to the point where even when Aang and his followers are outdoors
in broad daylight it still looks as if they’re standing beneath ominous storm
clouds. Unfortunately, large segments of “Airbender” are set in murky corridors,
shadow-filled caves and in similarly sunless locations. In these scenes, it
becomes a major challenge to even see what’s going on, much less follow the
chases and battles.

“Airbender” was inspired by a popular animated series known
as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” or “Avatar: The Legend of Aang,” which
originally ran on Nickelodeon from 2005 through 2008. (It seems someone else
decided to call his movie “Avatar,” so “The Last Airbender” had to suffice.)

Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (who was probably hungry
for some kind of a hit after the debacles of “Lady in the Water” and “The
Happening”) has followed the basic outline of the series, although my
15-year-old niece Rachael — an “Airbender” expert — complained many of the
character names were either mispronounced or dropped altogether in Shyamalan’s
screenplay, which labors dutifully to set up what Paramount hopes will be a
trilogy. The filmmakers aren’t particularly subtle about this: The movie begins
with the subtitle “Book One: Water” and ends with a cliffhanger custom-designed
to segue into the next installment.

Seventy years ago, “Airbender” would almost certainly have
been a serial; now, it’s a would-be blockbuster.

Picture “Harry Potter” with a Buddhist bent, and you’ll have
a good idea of what to expect from “Airbender.” Set in a future in which
civilization has splintered into far-flung nations — the Water Nation, the
Earth Nation, the Fire Nation, etc. — the story opens with Katara (Nicola
Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) hunting for food in the frozen wastes they
call home. Instead of bringing home dinner, they discover a mystery: Young
Aang, dressed like a miniature monk and adorned with odd tattoos on his shaven
head, emerges from an enormous bubble beneath the ice. It’s quickly discovered
Aang is an Airbender, a psychic warrior blessed with a talent for telekinesis;
Katara, for her part, is a Waterbender, who can manipulate liquids with her

Although the two of them could probably team up for one
heckuva magic show, they are instead forced into battle against the sinister
legions of the Fire Nation. The Fire Nation foot-soldiers dress like Shogun
warriors and travel around in ships that look like they’ve been in dry-dock
since World War I. They are, naturally, Firebenders, capable of shooting flames
at their enemies or surrounding their prey with flaming rings. Sounds like a
great skill to have, although the Firebenders don’t seem particularly adept at
using their powers. Besides, if there’s a Waterbender anywhere nearby, well,
the Firebenders run out of firepower pretty quickly.

Aang, Katara and Sokka embark on a round-the-world tour to
drum up support for their anti-Fire Nation crusade, finally setting up camp in
a snowy pseudo-Shangri-La ruled by a sympathetic – and way foxy — teenage
princess (Seychelle Gabriel) who could pass as Jessica Alba’s kid sister.

This is all unhappy news for Prince Zuko (Dev Patel of
“Slumdog Millionaire”), the disgraced and temporarily banished son of Fire Lord
Ozai (Cliff Curtis). Zuko wants to win back his father’s favor by capturing and
enslaving Aang before the adolescent Airbender can master waterbending,
earthbending and firebending and truly take his place as the all-powerful

“Airbender” might please the Saturday matinee crowd, and
there’s something to be said for any youth-oriented film that takes time out
from its fights and frights to extol the virtues of meditation, the wonders of
yin and yang and the importance of the grieving process. Those messages are
easier to take than Shyamalan’s script, which manages to seem half-baked at
some points and overcooked at others. There’s certainly no harmonic balance to
be found in the dialogue, which frequently flips back and forth between
lightheartedness (“Hey, guys! Where are you at?”) and heavy-handedness.

Perhaps legions of followers of the original show will turn
“Airbender” into a box office success. But don’t be surprised if Aang and
company soon find themselves exiled to the Nation of Failed Franchises,
alongside the casts of “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” “Eragon” and
“Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.”